Last month I went to a concert in the Teatro Mascarenhas Gregório in Silves and I felt compelled to find out more about this beautifully restored little theatre.
The theatre was a gift to the Silves population from Gregório Nunes Mascarenhas Neto.
Gregório was born to an affluent family in 1847. He was the son of Manuel Mascarenhas Neto who married his niece Ana Paula, thus making Gregório both the son and cousin of his own mother! He was born at Quinta da Cruz in Alcantarilha, which is now the amazing Hotel Capela das Artes, the only lodging monument in Portugal that has been classified as a monument of public interest for its “historical, architectural and cultural aspects”.
Left to ruin for many years, the 15th century house incorporates a chapel and oil factory all now fully restored. The well on the property provided water to the village for many years and it is said that there is a secret door at the bottom for villagers to use to escape pirate invasions!
Although his family was well off, Gregório started his own business in 1867, making his fortune which he shared with the Silves people through his many contributions to the town’s social, cultural and industrial heritage.
He sold cork to England and Germany, opening in 1897 Silves’ cork factory known as the Fábrica do Inglês, employing at the time over 200 workers for whom Gregório designed and built a housing estate nearby.
Gregório sold his share of the factory to his English and Catalan partners in 1902 and it continued to operate until 1991.
In 1999, the Fábrica do Inglês was redeveloped into a 1,000sqm leisure area with restaurants, cafés, an archive centre, gardens, tea house and a stage where I saw many fantastic shows in the early 2000s. This huge space in the heart of Silves also includes a cork factory museum, full of the original equipment, which won the Best Industrial Museum of the Year award in 2001.
Sadly, all this closed in 2010 when it was repossessed by the bank and has been derelict ever since.
In April 2016, the museum and Fábrica do Inglês site were put up for consideration to be classified as being of cultural importance in order to protect the buildings and prevent commercialisation of the land, but this never happened and its future remains uncertain.
Gregório was also involved in the tuna fish industry and followed the family tradition of going into politics when he was elected as the Silves Town President in 1882 and parish administrator in 1890. He supported the building of the Silves council headquarters Paços do Concelho and contributed greatly to the development of Silves. Focusing on its hygiene and cleanliness, he provided a town well near the Cruz de Portugal, improved roads and built stables for visiting horsemen.
Gregório was the proprietor of the Silves newspaper and owned the first car in Silves which he purchased from King Luis II’s son, D. Afonso. Gregório loved architecture and built a casino in Armação de Pêra and four architecturally prominent houses. In Armação de Pêra, his house, which sadly no longer exists, was named ‘Chalet dos Bicos’ and looked like a giant sandcastle with turrets and pillars. He also designed and built the ‘Chateaux Rouge’ in Caldas de Monchique and in Lisbon the ‘Chalet Ideal’.
Gregório wanted to give a theatre to the people of Silves and built it based on Italian designs. The inauguration celebrations began on July 24, 1909 and continued over two nights with plays and music enthralling the local population. It was the Algarve’s second theatre after the Lethes theatre in Faro, which is also beautifully restored.
Like most playhouses, from 1911 the theatre doubled up as a cinema and from 1937 it was the headquarters of the Silves Philharmonic Society, holding balls, concerts and shows.
Eventually, the theatre began to deteriorate and was closed and left to ruin. In 1981, Silves Câmara began negotiations to buy it by electing the property to be a ‘building of local interest’. It was purchased in March 1987 for four million escudos. However, it was not for another 10 years, in 1996, that the restoration plans were drawn up with work finally beginning in 2003 at a cost of €2 million.
Almost 100 years after the original inauguration, a celebratory concert was held in September 2005 but, afterwards, the theatre closed once again to conclude the restoration work. It only re-opened in April 2012.
The inside of the theatre is well worth visiting. The entrance lobby has an exhibition of local archaeological finds and a seating area used for drinks during show intervals.
A commemorative marble wall plaque names the theatre ‘Theatro Mascarenhas Gregório’ because due to a family dispute Gregório had previously changed his name by reversing his first and last names and dropping the Neto.
Beautifully polished wooden winding staircases lead the audience to the 140 red velvet seats spread across six balconies and the central stalls, recreating the authentic atmosphere of music halls from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I particularly love the twinkling stars effect on the ceiling and the whole scene made me feel like I had walked back in time.
More needs to be done by local councils to preserve architecturally unique and iconic buildings for future generations to appreciate and enjoy in today’s world of high-rise blocks and modern architecture. Restored buildings not only give us a glimpse and link to the past, but they are our heritage.
Gregório died in his ‘castle’ in Armação de Pêra in 1922, a loss to the Silves community who mourned his passing. Over the last seven years, the stunning theatre in Silves has hosted a variety of music, dance and drama shows still enthralling the Silves population over 100 years after it was built, thanks to the legacy of Gregório Mascarenhas or Mascarenhas Gregório!
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
|| [email protected]
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.